Although the offer of steaming apple cider and free desserts was appealing, I nevertheless planned on stopping by Geddes briefly and then being on my way. I can only mingle for so long, and my friends and I were anxious to put the finishing touches on final papers and projects and to enjoy our last moments on campus as the semester drew to a close.
Nevertheless, we lingered in the crowded coffee house longer than expected. Perhaps it was the apple cider. Or the free cookies. I suspect, however, that my own desire to remain at the party was not so much the result of an empty stomach as it was the sheer pleasure of being immersed in a demographic that is rarely present in the university setting and that is becoming more of the exception than the rule in the wider culture. We were surrounded, I observed, by families.
As the “real” adults in the room—some of whom have been my professors and all of whom assuredly have several more degrees than I do—talked academic “shop” (or, at least, this is what they do in my imagination), I found myself exchanging looks of amusement with a friend as we watched the children in the room entertaining themselves. One boy, who could have been no more than five or six years old, painstakingly scooped ladlefuls of the steaming apple cider into a cup for a girl (undoubtedly his sister) without spilling a drop. Others chattered to each other across the big oak table in the center of the room while their legs dangled beneath their chairs. The presence of the children and the consequent disorder breathed warmth and lightheartedness into the atmosphere of the party, and if anyone was entertained by these simple amusements, it was the college students in the room—even more, I suspect, than the children themselves.
The urge to write this article arose in response to encounters like this one, not only with the children at Christmas parties, university-sponsored picnics, and the like, but with their families. It arose as the simple desire to express gratitude to those faculty members—some of those “real adults” with whom we college students have regular contact—whose family lives are exemplary. If, indeed, “the meaning of life is learning to say ‘thank you’ better,” as Professor of Theology John Cavadini proposed to the audience in his 2015 “Saturdays with the Saints” lecture on Saint Augustine, then this article is intended to do exactly that: to say “thank you” to those professors whose words, actions, and commitment to their respective vocations both within the classroom and outside of it witness to the beauty and veracity of the Catholic faith.
As I mentioned earlier, there was something distinctive about the atmosphere in the coffee house that day, something that gave us pause and caused us to linger. What was its source? First, being among families was, as mentioned, a rare occurrence. Was it simply because we, as college students living in an artificial environment in which we interact almost exclusively with twenty-somethings, are sheltered? Or, perhaps, was it just me, an only child raised on a peninsula which doubles as a popular retirement destination?
I would argue that although both of these answers are correct, they do not fully explain why we wanted to stay longer. Even more than their entertainment value, the families possessed an inherent attractiveness that can thaw even the coldest hearts. The atmosphere in the coffee house was not simply lively and warm; it was familiar, even if we did not know all of the faces in the room or had never interacted with them outside of an academic context. The very origin of the word “familiar” is the Latin word for “household,” familia. The household—that is, the family—is the natural source from which man emerges, and it remains, for most, the ordinary context of his life, growth, and development. Thus it was natural for us to feel at home, to feel an attraction, and to desire more. In other words, in an encounter with the family, we intuitively recognized a good which has been fundamental not only to the development of individuals but to the order of human society throughout history.
The Church is continuously seeking to deepen her understanding of the place of the family in society. She has been exploring this throughout the ages but has become particularly interested in family life over the last century. Despite challenges and controversies, she nevertheless proclaims the family as something good and sanctifying.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, reflected deeply on the role of family life and sought to uphold it not only as a source of procreation and the continuation of the human species—a lofty good—but also as a source of sanctification for all of the members of the family. “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society,” the document explains, “is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family.” The purpose of family life, the Council Fathers suggest, is that “children and indeed everyone gathered around the family hearth will find a readier path to human maturity, salvation and holiness.”
Meanwhile, in its own way, the secular world is also experimenting with the family’s role, if not as intentionally or virtuously as the Church. With high divorce rates, broken families, infidelity, and a lack of esteem for marriage and the raising of children in general, the presence of authentic family life is becoming more uncommon and thus more exceptional. Consequently, the Church’s proclamation of the dignity and value of the family, and particularly the examples of individual families, is an increasingly acute need.
Doubtless, life within the family is filled with very real and difficult challenges. Yet witnesses to authentic family life provide society with an invaluable gift: an example of one path that has the potential to lead to growth in holiness, sanctification, and joy. Educators whose lives reflect this potential succeed in cultivating the hearts of their students in addition to their minds, as Blessed Basil Moreau so ardently desired to do in the establishment of Holy Cross educational institutions.
Nicole O’Leary is a junior theology and Italian major living in McGlinn Hall. Among her favorite saints are Mary, the Mother of God and Mother Teresa, but she’s recently taken an interest in Saint Isidore the Farmer. Contact her at email@example.com.